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Asbestos was heavily used in the military, as materials made with the mineral were inexpensive, durable and fire- and heat-resistant. In the U.S. Army, asbestos was most commonly found on bases, in vehicles and in weapons until the late 1970s. Army veterans were at risk of dangerous exposure, and those who are serving today are still at risk from old uses of the toxin.

Army veterans, veteran families and civilian workers who lived on Army bases and Army reserves or operated vehicles that were constructed before 1980 may have been exposed to asbestos and continue to be at risk of exposure today. Those exposed to asbestos from the U.S. military may develop malignant mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases years after exposure first occurred.

Asbestos Exposure in Army Veterans

The Army relied on asbestos for a number of reasons, most commonly its ability to fireproof and heatproof structures and equipment. Since asbestos-containing materials were inexpensive and easily accessible, they were used abundantly across all branches of the military until the 1970s. Asbestos is technically safe when it is intact and left undisturbed, but many of these materials wear down easily from daily use or old age, putting soldiers and Army veterans at risk of exposure.

Asbestos can be found in many buildings that were constructed prior to 1980, including throughout military bases. Similar to Air Force bases, the mineral was used most often for insulation purposes, but it could also be found in floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roofing materials, piping, siding and cement. These construction materials could be found in barracks, as well as mess halls, weapon storage areas, plane construction and vehicle construction.

Army reserves, which were off-site locations utilized to train part-time military personnel, also used asbestos materials in their construction. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 20 reserves across the country still had asbestos-containing materials on-site in 2005, resulting in the reserves closing for asbestos abatement.

Army veterans are also at risk of exposure from military equipment, such as Army vehicles that used asbestos to prevent fires in high-heat areas. Brake pads, clutch plates, gaskets, insulation and other automotive parts that experienced high temperatures were often made with asbestos and used in combat and transport vehicles and tank transporters. Army soldiers and mechanics assigned to maintaining and repairing these vehicles were at risk of being exposed to asbestos when performing maintenance work on the vehicles. This posed a risk for individuals both on base and in combat.

Active duty soldiers, construction workers, maintenance staff and mechanics were frequently exposed to asbestos in their everyday lives, but other civilian workers and families may have also been exposed. If loved ones lived on base, or a soldier returned home with the clothing he or she wore on base, the microscopic fibers may be transferred and inhaled, resulting in secondary exposure.

Army Veteran Mesothelioma Risk

According to the EPA, no level of asbestos exposure is safe, but asbestos is most hazardous when it is friable and airborne. Wearing of machinery and buildings on Army bases, reserves and equipment during combat can lead to airborne asbestos, which is easily inhaled or ingested.

Mesothelioma is a direct result of asbestos exposure and occurs when microscopic asbestos fibers are ingested or inhaled, ultimately reaching the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

Due to the military’s heavy use of asbestos throughout all branches, about one-third of mesothelioma diagnoses are veterans. The latency period of mesothelioma ranges from 10 – 50 years, meaning Army veterans often go undiagnosed until years after they served in dangerous asbestos conditions. Although the military has made efforts to protect active-duty soldiers from asbestos exposure and developing mesothelioma, thousands of Army veterans have already been exposed to the carcinogen.

Protecting Army Veterans from Asbestos Exposure

The Army Public Health Center has worked to develop regulations to protect soldiers and other workers from asbestos exposure. The Army implemented the Installation Asbestos Management program in the late 1990s in an effort to protect soldiers from exposure. The program requires Army facilities, both in the United States and overseas, to abide by asbestos regulations implemented on state and federal levels and implement asbestos management plans to deal with any identified asbestos quickly and safely. This meant that some bases were required to perform asbestos abatement of unsafe asbestos products. Since asbestos use was so common across all branches of the military, safer alternatives to replace the hazardous mineral were also recommended as part of the program to protect service members.

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